Saturday, 23 July 2011

On Being Honest About Being Less Than Fully Rational

(Yes, another tangent post.)

There are some odd tensions within our cultural values. There seems to co-exist both an emphasis on feelings and the personal subjective qualities of an experience and also an emphasis on, nay, a delight in, hard objective reason - the dispassionate search for truth that is unflinching toward even the most undesirable findings.

This latter attitude, probably a leftover from the Enlightenment, is considered a chief virtue in the world of philosophical religious debate. We all know that atheists often pride themselves on what they consider to be their piercing rational insight into the true nature of religion - a matter that in their eyes is confused by the logic-less wishful thinking of God-believers. But we theists give it back too. I have often been involved in discussions among Christians on the internet where we've derided the irrationality of atheist arguments and lamented the inability of our ideological opponents to think clearly enough to see the obvious strength of our position.

In the back-and-forth debate between bloggers and youtubers any sign of irrationality is quickly picked up on and shown to the world as evidence of the person's abject failure as a human being. The accused has committed the ultimate sin: being less than fully rational. (I exaggerate but if you've spent any time lurking around debate forums you'll hopefully see some truth in what I'm saying.) Ironically, placing such a large demand on people to be perfectly rational, and in turn such a high personal cost if one is found out not to be, both in terms of the detriment it causes to one's image of oneself and the shame one faces within the community, actually makes people more likely to be irrational.

It's counter-intuitive but from the reading I've done recently on the psychology of human rationality, it seems undeniably true. In this paper Maarten Boudry and Johan Braeckman explore how it is that humans are able to persist in believing things despite the fact that they are subject to obvious counter-evidence. How is it, for instance, that despite Harold Camping's prediction that the world would end on May 21st being quite obviously falsified, he and some of his followers continue to think that in some sense his prediction was validated? Do Camping and his faithful simply lack a concern for rationality? Are they happy to ignore evidence without batting an eyelid? This sort of explanation of their behaviour is na├»ve. The persistence of such beliefs is not achieved by ignoring reason. It is achieved by using it to rationalise – some reason is construed as to why counter-evidence doesn't actually pose a problem for the challenged belief. The prophecy wasn't a failure after all you see! It was a spiritual event, not one that occurred in space and time! The full end of the world stuff will happen later …

As contrived as those explanations sound, what they demonstrate is a concern for being rational. The fact that a person thinks that the counter-evidence needs explaining shows that the person considers consistency and rationality as good, desirable traits. It is painful to be exposed as non-objective, as uncritical and silly. A person will thus persist in rationalisation both because he/she has a vested interest in preserving the belief under attack AND a vested interest in being a rational human being.

In the book 'I Told Me So', Gregg Elshof takes a look at self-deception techniques from a Christian perspective. He argues (I think, rightly) that we find it hard in our culture to accept that we might be able to successfully deceive ourselves because we place such a high value on personal honesty and authenticity. In fact, that because we value these things so highly we are more prone to self-deception since there is a high personal cost involved in being exposed as inauthentic. In other words because we have such a high vested interest in not being self-deceivers, we are prone to deceiving ourselves about our own self-deception!

It makes sense that a similar logic would play out when we have such a high vested interest in being coolly reasoned, critically aware persons. Because it would hurt so much to see ourselves as less than fully rational, and for other people to see that too, we rationalise away the evidence that we are rationalising! The more we care about being rational the harder it is to see that we're being irrational.

Is this a license to be truly unconcerned with rational thinking? Certainly not. It is not good to be irrational. It is not good to believe falsely. Not only does truth seem good for its own sake, but there can also be harmful consequences to having incorrect beliefs (if you think a cliff edge is actually a continuous piece of land and you try to walk on it, you'll be in trouble!) The corrective is not to abandon a concern for rationality, but to be more honest and humble about the rational shortcomings of all of us. We need to stop demonising irrationality as the unforgivable sin. From a purely Christian perspective, we need to understand that our sinful nature does not stop short of our rationality, but that we all lack intellectual virtues. We need to cultivate an environment where people actually feel free to confess their irrationality as well as their adultery or alcoholism. We need to extend some grace.

The results can only be positive. Not only will we be more able to see the rational shortcomings in ourselves and so improve upon them, but we leave space for people to admit that they have been wrong. How much harder do we make it for people to change their worldview when we place such a high social penalty on being imperfect thinkers? Although I think this is advice Christians need to heed, I dare say that atheist communities may need it especially. So much of the atheist self-image seems built on being rational and so much of their vitriol against Christians involves accusations of delusion. This sort of environment produces a very high cost for seeing rational weakness in yourself and your ideological position and thus places one at very high risk of self-deception. An atheist community that really cares about honest rational enquiry ought to make it easier for these values to be practised.

In the interest of being contributive toward a change in cultural attitude, allow me to make a confession: I don't think my conversion to Christianity was perfectly rational. For a long time I interpreted my conversion as the result of a simple “going where the evidence leads” conclusion. Having read about self-deception techniques and cognitive bias, and spotting them in myself, I cannot sustain that picture (our own interpretations of why we believe things are often wrong). And to be honest, that's been painful to admit to myself. I studied philosophy, an intellectual discipline. Many of my peers see me as a smart person. I have a high vested interest in being rational.

But I know that I have often spent more time being critical of arguments that challenge my beliefs rather than those that support it. I know I've more often sought out material that supports my beliefs, rather than material that challenges them. I know that there are emotional interests that have fuelled these behaviours. So I am less than fully rational. How much less I'm not sure. It's hard to read yourself. But I am definitely not some sort of disinterested rational robot. I doubt anyone is when it comes to the deepest matters of life. Again, skeptics, don't think you're immune. One can be attached and emotionally invested in atheism as much as Christianity or any other worldview.

All this isn't to say that I don't think Christianity is true, or has good arguments and evidence for it. The very reason why I've been susceptible to this kind of behaviour is because I value critical thought. Christianity is able to make sense to me and still does. All I'm saying is that I've succumbed to biases. It's not great, I'm not proud of it, but there ya go. I'm now trying to develop the intellectual virtues that at times I've lacked.

I hope you'll be encouraged to be honest with yourself about your own less-than-perfect rationality. 

God forgive us.

1 comment:

rolo said...

Hey Martin,
I definitely see where your coming from and I think the problem doesn't just lie in the value we place on rational thought, but in something much more intrinsic to Western Culture.
Unlike many cultures both in the past and today, Western Culture pressures us to be heavily compartmentalized. In other words we tend to separate many aspects of our lives and existence that most other cultures don't. For instance we separate our public and private lives, we separate our personal faith from our public faith, and we even separate rationality from irrationality. It's in separating rationality from irrationality that I think Western culture as a whole has erred severely.
Instead of seeing rationality and irrationality as both primal and essential aspects of our existence in the modern age we tend to see these two things as opposing each other. Hence on the one side we have people who say that all that matters in life is our own subjective experiences and others who say that only objective data is what matters. I think your articles points out just some of the flaws in this sort of thinking.
I can also agree wholeheartedly with what you said about your conversion to Christianity not being a wholly rational thing. I too remember telling myself for the longest that I didn't convert to Christianity because I felt it offered me hope, but that I converted completely because of the evidence.It took me some time that it's ok to be a Christian for emotional or irrational reasons.Obviously that shouldn't be the only reason. Nonetheless being irrational isn't a vice, rather along with rationality it's what makes us human.